Lucretius and becoming happy

 

Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.

Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.

The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.

Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.

So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?

Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.  

If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.

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What is real?

Are we dreaming? Does the world we live in even exist? Do I exist? These are questions that have been grabbled with for thousands of years, and yet we still have no definite answers. The question ‘Do I exist?’ was best answered by Descartes when saying ‘cogito ergo sum’. However, there are still no satisfactory answers, it seems, to the question of whether anything outside of our minds is real.

There are many things which may make life seem real, especially when we compare our ‘real’ life to that of our own dreams. Our dreams tend to be disordered, random, and unpredictable. The conscious world is much more orderly and understandable than the murky depths of the unconscious. Maybe there is no world outside our minds, but even if there wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t change much. We cannot not live in this world unless we die. Of course, we don’t have to ‘die’ in the most fundamental sense. We can kill ourselves without really dying, and in today’s world this seems particularly applicable. How much of our time do we spend in the ‘real’ world? Was there once a real world which is no longer really accessible to us? We spend so much time watching other worlds, reading about other worlds, dreaming of other worlds, and creating other worlds that it is hard to decipher what is real and what is not. Is social media real? Or is it a virtual reality, a fake? We exist in this world, but are we living in it? Perhaps we have become too detached from what is real-nature and other people-that we have lost a sense of reality. Even if the world outside our minds isn’t real and other people and nature doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t matter, because they exist to us, and they are the most real thing we could ever experience.

If we want to live again, we must come back to reality, whatever that is. It may not be possible to say what reality is, only what it is not.

Addiction and human nature

Addiction is most commonly associated with the category of drugs. But what if we all had different addictions, to different drugs? I’m not saying that we’re all secretly addicted to heroin or ketamine, because although we put these kind of substances in the group of ‘drugs’ that people take, there may be more and more drugs than we think. Are we all addicts?

Is there something which you need to get you through the day? Must you have coffee in the morning, or TV late at night? Are the Facebook and Instagram feeds your form of relief to make the day bearable? Do you have to read some of a novel to help you get work done? I’m sure everyone has some form of relief they use to get them through life. I may be wrong, but then again…

Addiction may not just be something to do with illegal or legal ‘substances’. In fact, addiction may be all around. The question is whether we are all addicted to something, something which makes the day bearable. This does not mean that addiction is wrong. What it does tell us is a key insight into human nature. If we really do need certain things to pull us through life, what is our natural state? If we are addicts, in one form or another, what is the norm without such things? It is hard to think that the state of humanity is anything but a dissatisfied one. It seems that boredom is natural to man, and that ‘happiness’, or ‘satisfaction’, is not the norm. Perhaps it is, and I am wrong, but throughout life today, the widespread use of social media, the excess of consumption in the form of clothes to the form of television seems to prove my point. We fill our lives with distractions because we are not satisfied.

It was Arthur Schopenhauer who proposed that life is a pendulum swinging ‘backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ When we are in pain, we fill it with things to relieve the pain, but after a while, we become bored of this. This is, according to Schopenhauer, how life works. Even if this is true, we must not despair. In one of my previous posts, ‘why suffering can be good’, I wrote about the usefulness of pain. Although at first we may want to immediately sedate the pain, this may not be the right choice, since it is only through suffering that we can grow as people and evolve. The most worthwhile of things are the products of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. Concluding that we are addicts at nature may help us realise two things:

  1. That it is not primarily our fault for our addictive nature-it is just the world we live in.
  2. Addiction is a way of dealing with boredom and pain. There are many various ways of dealing with this dissatisfaction, some better than others.

Rather than turning to heroine, binge-watching of television or social media feeds, we can, as Alain de Botton wrote, ‘turn pain into knowledge.’

Today is the only day

We like to think that we will live forever. We like to think that death doesn’t really exist, or at least that it won’t affect us. It may be true that death won’t affect us in the way we think because we’ll be dead, and so we won’t exist any longer, but this doesn’t mean we won’t ‘die’.

Death isn’t easy to accept, but it must be confronted. If we act as if we have an infinite amount of time on earth, then it is hard to see a good reason for doing anything worthwhile, since we will always be here. But if we realise that we only have a limited time on this earth, and that soon enough we will be dead and no longer exist, we might just come to recognise the importance of today, and that the only time is now, because soon enough there will be no more ‘now’ for us.

Death shouldn’t be frowned upon, nor should it be feared. Rather it should be used as a reminder of the brevity of life, that our lives could end at any minute, perhaps even right now, and that life is something to be seized and used while it can be. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, do it, because tomorrow you might be dead. If there was something you wanted to tell someone, say it, for tomorrow they might be dead. Death is far from something to be avoided and thrown to the back of our minds. If we allow it, death may enable us to live our lives to the full. Once we accept that this is the only time we have, that today is the only day, and that soon we will be no more, we can start living.

Why suffering can be good

‘Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing.’ Chuck Palahniuk

It is a commonly held view that pain is bad and that suffering is to be avoided. It’s true that avoiding suffering is generally easier than facing it and dealing with it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what we should do. The idea of the importance of bearing with suffering goes back to Nietzsche who emphasised that suffering was necessary for greatness. Nothing good can come without pain, sacrifice, hard work.

An easy life can come from avoiding suffering. The most fulfilled lives, however, the lives of the greats, were made by suffering. It is because of suffering that we are able to listen to the likes of Mozart, to look at the likes of da Vinci, and to read the likes of Homer. The suffering itself may be incredibly painful, at times almost unbearable, but it is this suffering which will enable us to create art of another level. Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a heavy influence on the thought of Nietzsche, once said ‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.’ Only through enduring pain and suffering can we become greater human beings, and, if we wish, create something worthwhile.

 

 

Who am I?

What makes me, me? Who am I? These are questions we all ask ourselves, though the answer may be difficult to get at, if at all possible. Perhaps we think that our unique qualities makes us who we are, or just our conscious subjectivity. But are we really all that unique? Are we different, or is the ego and the self just an illusion?

Although we tend to refer to ourselves as ‘I’, and to say things such as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, does this mean that there is such a thing as ‘I’? If there is one self, what is it made up of? It seems that we are not one self, but many selves. This has been made clearer since the introduction of social media. There is no doubt that the ‘I’ on social media is different from the ‘I’ alone in my bedroom or the ‘I’ with my family. Some people may be vaguely similar to the people they call themselves on social media, while some are vastly different. But is this also the case in our whole lives? Is the person I meet my friends different to the person writing this post? Do ‘I’, in this sense, even exist? Perhaps we must ask ourselves whether it is our appearance that makes us seem different. Maybe even our self-consciousness may convince us that we are different. Maybe we are unique, but then again, maybe we aren’t.

The self may or not be an illusion, but one thing is certain-that we cannot help being individual. We cannot not take our lives seriously, as Thomas Nagel puts it, and so perhaps this is irrelevant. It could be true that the ‘self’ doesn’t really exist, but it is not possible for us to live without the concept of a self. Maybe there is a genuine way to live without a self, but if there is, then ‘I’ have not been able to do so. Whether there be a self or not, what seems most reasonable is to act in a way that will make us free.

 

Free?

The concept of freedom in today’s world is a funny one. We like to think that the consumerist culture we live in an example of freedom, and that more choice always means more freedom. The problem is that we are not free. Bombardment from constant advertising, constant connections on ‘social’ networks, and the pressure of meeting deadlines for the sake of ‘success’ means that we are not really free. Of course, humanity could never be completely free, since we all depend on things such as food and water and shelter to survive. But after our survivalist needs have been met, what then?

If somebody was asked, ‘do you want to be free?’ I doubt anyone would say that they don’t want to be free. But, today, is this really case? Do we desire freedom so much that we fight for it? We may no longer be under the enslavement of other nations or tribes, but that does not mean we are free. We are still enslaved, just not in the same way. Now we are slaves to things, possessions. We are fed with this false fact that living as a consumer will make us happy, but what it does is keep us bound, preventing us from being freer. We are told consumerism liberates us, but what it does is imprison us. Is it the fault of the advertisers? Are they to blame for this, or is it us, the people, who have chosen this because freedom is too scary? Is bare human existence so painful that we have to fill our lives with things? We are all so driven by this picture of ‘success’ that we are fed in school that we fail to look around us-at the birds, the sky, other people.

Sometimes we just need to stop and realise that we might be taking life a bit too seriously, and that we are neglecting the things that matter. When I die, I won’t be concerned with what I owned, but the relationships I had, and the difference I made.

We all die and we only have a limited, brief time here.

Stop, and look around, for it is people who matter, not things.

We may never be completely free, but we can try to be as free as we can be.

Is life meaningless? Pt.4

This is the final part of the question ‘is life meaningless?’ We have discussed that God may or may not exist, but it is up to ourselves to make life meaningful. God’s existence is, ultimately, irrelevant. Moreover, we have seen that even if there was life after death, it would not necessarily follow that life therefore has a purpose. Furthermore, if there is not life after death, this should not lead to despair, but should act as a spring-board to throw our lives into action. Not only does a recognition of death provide a greater appreciation of now, since we know it will not last, but it may also spur us on to use the limited time we have on earth to do something worthwhile. Finally, then, I am going to look life in society, the life we live today, and whether the lives we lead are meaningless. This post will mainly focus on consumerism, and the variations of culture.

Perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is ‘are we living?’, and further, ‘are we living in the ‘real’ world?’ Of course, we could spend lifetimes discussing what ‘real’ is, but for the sake of this discussion, we will be talking about the levels of reality of a consumerist society, and moreover how much, if any, of our lives is ‘real’.

Consumerist culture obviously thrives on consumption, and relies on the consumer to maintain their consumption to boost economic gain. However, what does consumerism mean for the individual? In Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club, he writes ‘people working jobs they hate, so they can buy things they don’t really need’. He further writes:’The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.’ These are both succinct examples of how consumerism affects the individual. Are we spending time doing things we don’t enjoy so that we can consume things we don’t even need? If so, why? Before, people were addicted to pornography, now they are addicted to consumption and possessions. Society has moved from one destructive addiction to another. But why is it, we must ask, that we feel the need, the compulsion, to work for mere things? One answer, perhaps the most reasonable, is that life is meaningless, and that instead of facing this fact, consumerism acts as a painkiller, a sedative, to distract us, and give us a false sense of purpose. Not only this, but consumerist culture ignores the inevitability of death. We buy new, better, and fundamentally unnecessary things because we act as if we will always be able to work for something better, that we can replace our old phone with a new one for eternity, but this just isn’t true. Nobody likes this harsh fact, but it is a fact. No-one wants to be told that soon enough they’ll be dead, and all that will be left is a new phone or whatever. It is a form of slavery, consumerist society, and the paradox is that we’ve enslaved ourselves. We are now slaves to possessions. The most life-threatening drug out there is accessible to all. Not only this, but it is purely this drug which is supported in our education systems. Our society is a drug-induced society. We are urged to chase success, to become ‘successful’, and to achieve greatness. The problem is that success already manages to stay out of reach. We spend our lives chasing a shadow, the shadow of ‘success’, and no matter how much we achieve, we may never feel ‘successful’, since it is in the nature of a consumerist culture to never be satisfied, to always want more, to never cease. Before we do anything else, we must recognise that life does indeed cease. Only when death is recognised can the futility of consumerism be seen.

So we have established that consumerist culture is meaningless, and that in the end it is a pointless affair and a waste of a life. Are there, though, any other ways of living? How can we combat the drug of consumerism? Firstly, death must be accepted, acknowledged, and embraced as an inevitable reality. Life may be ultimately meaningless, but this does not mean that there doesn’t exist any reason not to live or any reason why life is worthwhile. Consumerism is a meaningless reaction to a meaningless existence. Think, when you die, what will you want to be remembered for? What will other people, the people you knew, and perhaps people in the future, say about you? Do people really want to be remembered as the person who owned the nicest car, the newest phone, or the biggest house? It seems that when death is at the door, nobody cares about these kind of things. At the end of the day, it is your choice how you live. It is also your choice whether you live a meaningless life, or not. All I ask is that you question what kind of life yours is. work-buy-consume-die

Is life meaningless? Pt.3

Is death our final end?

What if death is the end? What if there is no afterlife, we die, and that’s it, we cease to exist? If death is indeed the end, then life is no doubt, objectively speaking, pointless. We live until we die would be the case. Can there even be any true justice if death is the end? No, it seems there cannot be such a thing.

But what if there is life after death? Immanuel Kant thought that due to practical reason, there must be a God, and an afterlife, if there was to be any real justice. If there is life after death, then there surely must be some kind of objective purpose to existence, even though we may not be able to know or perceive such a thing now. Could there be, however, an afterlife, yet life here on earth still remains meaningless? Perhaps, but we cannot know for sure. Nevertheless, it seems that even with an afterlife, many of the trivial things we do every day and take seriously and view as important may not be so. One thing we can almost say for certain is that material possessions will have no value if such an afterlife exists. It appears to be the case that who we are, rather than what we own, will matter. How we treated others, not how ‘successful’ we were, will matter. Sometimes, it seems, we need to remind ourselves that one day we will die, and that little things, like whether we own the latest gadget, do not really matter.

If death is the end, then we must make life on earth, it seems, more just and we must remind ourselves frequently how short our lives really are, so that we can seize the moment and make a difference in the brief period of our lives. The problem with this is that one may take the view that nothing is worth doing or nothing is right or wrong. However, just because there may be no life after this one does not mean this life here and now is not worthwhile. Our lives on earth being worthwhile is not dependent on whether there is life after death. Furthermore, acting virtuously merely for reward after death is not really virtue after all. People are treated as means, rather than ends, and so acting out of fear of punishment, or for reward from God is not a worthy reason to be ‘good’. What is a worthy reason is another question altogether, although I will mention the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre here, which may be likened to Kant’s idea of a Categorical Imperative. Sartre said that when we choose to act upon something and make a decision, we are choosing for humankind also. If we choose to get drunk on a Saturday night, we are effectively saying that we think this is the way everyone should spend their Saturday evenings. Kant taught that we should live ‘as though your every act were to become a universal law.’

It is clear that life would have no intrinsic meaning if this life is the end (although an afterlife may not mean this life was in fact meaningful), but this does not mean that life is not worth living, or that we are unable to create purpose for ourselves. Regardless of the fact that there is an afterlife or not, one should, it seems, act as if deciding for mankind, and to focus one’s life on what really matters. When you die, people will not care about the things you own, they will care about the person you have become, and the difference you have made. With an afterlife or not, surely this must be what matters.